JERUSALEM – Israel's Cabinet rejected a proposal to delay the summer's Gaza Strip (search) withdrawal by six months on Sunday, while the first settler families voluntarily moved out of their Gaza and West Bank (search) homes.
Underscoring fears of possible attacks by extremists who oppose the withdrawal plans, the 21 Israeli ministers were fitted for bulletproof vests before the meeting started in the prime minister's office.
The 18-3 vote against the proposal to delay the withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements means the forced evacuation of settlers will begin in mid-August, as planned.
The delay had been proposed by Agriculture Minister Israel Katz, a hard-liner opposed to the withdrawal.
The Cabinet's wrangling over the Gaza pullout highlighted the bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister. Netanyahu voted in favor of the delay, a direct challenge to Sharon.
The 21 ministers gathered on an upper floor of the building before the meeting and were fitted for bulletproof vests by Israel's Shin Bet (search) security service — protection against possible attack by extremists among the withdrawal opponents.
The Shin Bet will assess the level of threat daily and instruct the ministers on when to wear the vests, defense officials said on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.
At least eight settler families, meanwhile, have moved out of their homes in recent days, including two in Gaza and six in the West Bank. If growing numbers of families leave voluntarily before the government's deadline, withdrawal opponents could be weakened considerably.
The departures coincided with the start of summer vacation in Israeli schools at the end of June.
The six-member Gross family of the Elei Sinai settlement in northern Gaza, on the border with Israel, moved out of its home Sunday. Haim Gross said he supported the Gaza withdrawal and was looking forward to beginning a new life with his wife and four daughters in the nearby Moshav Maslul, after spending 10 years in Elei Sinai. The Gross family was the first to leave Elei Sinai.
In Gaza's Rafiah Yam settlement, the Abovitch family left Thursday and moved to northern Israel.
In the small West Bank settlement of Ganim, at least five families have moved out since Thursday, and another five were expected to leave in coming days, said Rami Mansour, the secretary of the community. Ganim once was home to 30 families. Mansour said all but seven families were expected to be gone by the time soldiers come to remove the remaining residents by force, Mansour said.
The families that will remain mostly were opposed to the government's compensation package, not necessarily the actual withdrawal, Mansour said.
In the nearby Kadim settlement, one family moved out last week and settled in a town in northern Israel, said the settlement's spokeswoman, Debbie Drori. She said she did not know how many other families are planning to move before the forced evacuation begins. Kadim once had 25 families, but several left temporarily during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, renting homes in Israel.
Even for those leaving voluntarily, the move is not easy.
In Elei Sinai, Molly Gross cried when she bid farewell to friends and neighbors in Elei Sinai.
Haim Gross said he and his wife decided to move now because they didn't want to expose their daughters to a forced evacuation, expected to be accompanied by clashes between settlers and soldiers.
Even now, Gross' three youngest daughters, ages 6, 10 and 11, spent the weekend with their grandparents so they wouldn't have to watch the move. They also got a horse as a gift, so they would have something to look forward to in their new community which has a horse ranch, Gross said.
"We have mixed feelings. We are parting and moving away from our very good friends ... but on the other hand we are building a new life for ourselves and are hoping for a good future," Gross said.
"Israel has to leave there (Gaza). With all the difficulty and problems ... we have to do it because we have no business being there (in Gaza)," Gross said. "We have to part from the Palestinians once and for all. They will live their lives and we will live ours."